Gregory of Nyssa and a Genderless Humanity

Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation of human nature and gender is a provocative departure from commonly accepted ideas in the late ancient world. To recognize the ingenuity of his approach, it is fitting to consider two common alternative paradigms.

One comes to us as the myth of Aristophanes, told through Plato’s Symposium. Originally there were three human races – male, female, and hermaphrodite. Each individual was spherical and actually a doubled self, both sides anatomically complete. In a bout of hubris, they assailed heaven. As punishment, Zeus sliced them in half, and the resulting half-beings now must seek each other out for completion. (The originally male and female beings explain homosexuality, and the original hermaphroditic beings explain heterosexuality.) Each of us is fundamentally incomplete, looking for another to supply our lack.

The other alternative, adopted by many Christians, viewed gender (as we know it now) as an integral part of our nature. However, the masculine was identified with nous or the rational faculties whereas the feminine was identified with sense perception and with sexuality (contra contemporary Americans, who tend to regard males as the more sexual gender). This identification creates a clear spiritual hierarchy, since early Christians associated the image of God with the higher rational faculties. A common theme found with variations in the Gospel of Thomas, Philo, Jerome, and others, is that a woman who devotes herself to God spiritually transcends her gender and becomes male. Under this paradigm, males and the masculine are unequivocally superior to females and the feminine. Augustine, an heir of this tradition, modifies it somewhat toward equality.

Gregory of Nyssa’s view of gender diverges widely from the two paradigms above. His theology of creation indicates that gender is not a dissociation from previous wholeness nor an essential aspect of human nature. Instead, Gregory’s creation theology is informed by his eschatology. Finding in Paul that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Gregory reasons that there will be no gender in the final state, and thus that gender was not part of the original created intention. He takes as a matter of course that the original blueprint for humanity corresponds to the final product.

Human nature, then, is essentially and primitively genderless. God intended for them to procreate spiritually after the manner of angels (whatever that means). However, God foresaw that they would fall into sin, and in his provenance created humans with gender so that they would be able to procreate after the manner of beasts. The logic seems to be that since the Fall was a result of the first parents falling prey to the sensual side of their natures, they became enslaved to sensuality and would not have the spiritual state required for spiritual procreation.

The foundational insight of Gregory’s theology of creation, then, is that gender is accidental to human nature. Several significant consequences follow from this premise. First, each individual is spiritual whole in himself or herself. Humans do not need to find completion in another person, but only in God. Vows of virginity do not make a woman spiritually male, as per Jerome, but prepare the person for the deified state.   Further, both genders are spiritually equal, since the image of God is itself genderless. One wonders what this theology would have accomplished in the church if it had been widely embraced and if it were not held in check by hierarchical cultures.

Gregory’s creation theology is a welcome departure from theories that make men and women spiritually dependent on each other for completion or that subordinate women to men. Yet, there are still concerns. Most contemporary people identify more strongly with their gender than seeing it merely as a way to procreate. Most see their gender as an integral part of their personality; even transgender behavior points to a more than biological need to identify with gender. Gregory’s theology does not seem to leave room for gender to play any important role in constructing human personality, including spirituality.

[Note: this post is a reflection on Gregory of Nyssa’s views on gender as presented in J. Warren Smith’s Passion and Paradise. The informal nature of a blog exempts me, I believe, from precise footnoting.]

Published in: on March 3, 2012 at 11:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The “Masculine” and “Feminine” Mind

In book 12 of On the Trinity, Augustine asserts that the image of God consists in the rational soul, those functions that are distinct from mere animal sensation and memory. Even in the rational soul, that image is evident only under certain circumstances. “Only in that part which is concerned with the contemplation of eternal things can one find something that is not only a trinity but also the image of God; while in the part that is drawn off for temporal activity one may perhaps find a trinity, but certainly not the image of God” (12.4).

Now, Hill’s translation can be a bit misleading at this point. Augustine does not believe that the mind has two “parts” that deal with different matters. Nor does the mind exercise a specific set of functions when it considers eternal things, and a different set for temporal things. Rather, to use a computer analogy, some of the mind’s processing power is constantly diverted from contemplating eternal truth in order to accomplish the necessary tasks of finite, mortal life. So, insofar as mental energy is directed “downward” toward temporal things, it still operates in trinitarian fashion. The image of God, however, appears clearly in man only insofar as he looks “upward” to eternal things. There are not two parts or functions of the mind, then, but two orientations.

The image of God is the image of the Trinity. It exists in each person, not in some three person scheme such as “Father, mother, and child.” Augustine appeals to Genesis 1:27, with an odd but serviceable punctuation. “And God made man to the image of God, he made them male and female, he made them and blessed them.” He asserts that not only man, but woman also is made in the image of God, since both man and woman have a rational soul and contemplate eternal things.

Now it is with respect to this renewal [of the rational mind] that we are also made sons of God through Christian baptism, and when we put on the new man it is of course Christ that we put on through faith. Is there anyone then who would exclude females from this association, seeing that together with us men they are fellow heirs of grace, and the same apostle says somewhere else, You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all you who were baptized in Christ thereby put on Christ. There is no Jew nor Greek, there is no slave nor free, there is no male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26). Surely this does not mean, does it, that female believers have lost their bodily sex? But because they are being renewed to the image of God where there is no sex, it is there where there is no sex that man was made to the image of God, that is in the spirit of his mind. (12.12)

However, Augustine runs into a difficulty. 1 Corinthians 11:7 states, “The man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God. But the woman is the glory of the man.” In order to reconcile his doctrine with the Apostle’s words, Augustine resorts to a clever allegorical reading. He takes as his point of departure the statement in Genesis that woman is to be the assistant of the man. Thus, woman symbolizes the downward orientation of the mind, which exists to carry out necessary temporal operations, so that upward orientation may be as little hindered as possible. The picture is similar to a modern secretary managing daily tasks so that the CEO may concentrate on strategy (or golf).

As good and necessary as this downward orientation is, it carries dangers. Man’s fall into sin is a two-stage event. First, he turns from the contemplation of eternal things to undue concentration on temporal things. Then, in this middle stage of self, “he is thrust down as a punishment from his own half-way level to the bottom, to the things in which the beasts find their pleasure” (12.16). Moving to a somewhat more material description of the mind, it is the job of the upward  mind to rule the downward mind so that it is not led astray. The downward mind will inevitably face temptation, but the whole mind should reject it. Augustine parallels daily temptation to the garden.

To consent to this temptation is to eat of the forbidden tree. But if this consent is satisfied merely with the pleasure of thought, while the authority of the higher counsel restrains the members of the body from offering themselves to sin as weapons of iniquity (Rom 6:13), then I think it should be regarded as if the woman alone ate the forbidden food. If however in consenting to the bad use of things that are perceived by bodily sensation it is decided to commit some sin or other with the body as well should the possibility present itself, then it is to be understood as the woman giving the unlawful food to her husband to eat together with her. (12.17)

Finally, the argument comes full circle. Since the downward operations of the soul are dangerous when not serving the interests of the upward gaze, the woman ought to wear a symbol of authority on her head. Feminist critics may be displeased with Augustine’s resolution, but it is profoundly subtle. Augustine has avoided saying that the woman wears a covering because she is inferior to the man and needs restraint. Rather, what woman symbolizes is inferior to and needs restraint by what man symbolizes. The lesson is for both sexes, since each contains the same rational mind, made in the same triune image. Augustine realizes, though, that his interpretation may not be persuasive to some, so he closes with this appeal:

But whether it is this, that or any other way you interpret what the apostle said about the man being the image and glory of God, the woman the glory of the man, it is clear that when we live according to God our mind should be intent on his invisible things and thus progressively be formed from his eternity, truth and charity, and yet that some of our rational attention, that is to say some of the same mind, has to be directed to the utilization of changeable and bodily things without which this life cannot be lived; this however not in order to be conformed to this world (Rom 12:2) by setting up such goods as the final goal and twisting our appetite for happiness onto them, but in order to do whatever we do in the reasonable use of temporal things with an eye to the acquisition of eternal things, passing by the former on the way, setting our hearts on the latter to the end. (12.21)

Published in: on March 9, 2011 at 12:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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